Vinyl has made such a strong return that even I’m surprised. I’ve kept the LP faith for more than 25 years, during which time the format has often been declared dead. Hip-hop probably did its part to help keep vinyl alive, and people like me -- baby boomers who began collecting vinyl in the 1960s -- kept at it. We bought LPs both old and new, while reissue labels and the few surviving pressing plants made sure we’d have new vinyl to add to our collections.
Analogue Productions, Sundazed, and Speakers Corner are just three labels that have kept releasing vinyl all along, but the label with the longest history in audiophile reissues, on vinyl and other formats, is Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. Its Original Master Recordings, first released in 1977, set the standard for carefully remastered recordings and high-quality pressings. At a time when most US records were released on noisy recycled vinyl, MoFi’s were pressed from biscuits of virgin vinyl in Japan.
Except for a brief period between 1999 and 2001, Mobile Fidelity has continued to steadily reissue recordings in a wide variety of genres for nearly 40 years. Their LPs, now pressed by RTI, in California, are still among the best, and the music the label chooses to reissue is of interest to a wide variety of vinyl collectors, as illustrated by the titles I’m covering here -- a soundtrack, a new-wave rock classic, and a controversial Miles Davis recording.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film One from the Heart was a financial disaster that grossed less than $1 million in 1982, the year of its release. It had cost $26 million to produce, and its failure led to Coppola’s filing for bankruptcy. Critics remain divided about the film, but the songs Tom Waits wrote for it, and recorded with country singer Crystal Gayle, were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score, and the soundtrack album has remained in print since its release.
Coppola brought Waits in for the film after hearing “I Never Talk to Strangers,” Waits’s duet with Bette Midler on his album Foreign Affairs (1977). Midler wasn’t available to record the soundtrack with Waits, who suggested Gayle. Waits’s voice hadn’t yet developed the full-on rasp it now has, but its dark, world-weary quality provided a strong contrast to Gayle’s clear enunciation, and her clean statements of Waits’s melodies.
Bones Howe produced, engineered (with Biff Dawes), and mixed the soundtrack. Waits recorded at Wally Heider Recording in Hollywood between October 1980 and September 1981, using small groups occasionally augmented by orchestral arrangements from Bob Alcivar. The sound on Columbia/Legacy’s 2004 reissue CD is sumptuous and expansive, but Waits’s piano sounds warmer and more harmonically rich in the opening montage on the Mobile Fidelity pressing (MFSL 1-448). His and Gayle’s voices have a more three-dimensional quality when the piano intro segues into “Once Upon a Town,” and when they harmonize, their voices are separated better.
The string arrangement sounds deeper in the montage on vinyl, especially in the lower register; and when the track segues to Waits and Gayle singing “The Wages of Love” with a five-piece jazz combo, Greg Cohen’s bass has more definition and body, Dennis Budimir’s guitar is more clearly defined, and Pete Jolly’s piano rings out with more authority and fullness.
Waits and Gayle duet twice more. In “Picking Up After You,” Cohen’s bass has a deeper, more lifelike presence than on the CD. Jack Sheldon’s trumpet is cleaner and stronger, with fuller tone. The voices are more detailed and focused, which underlines the contrast between Waits’s smoky baritone and Gayle’s clear soprano. Both singers have solo spots, and Gayle’s remarkable voice control is even more clearly presented on this pressing.
Mobile Fidelity’s pressing of One from the Heart sounds so impressively deep and large that the CD sounds flat by comparison. Greg Cohen’s bass has so much more low-end force that it ends up sounding tame on CD. The textural qualities of Waits’s voice are more focused, giving his performances greater emotional force: He sounds more regretful in “I Beg Your Pardon,” more wistful in “Little Boy Blue.” Gayle’s vocal technique is also clearer here, as are the expressive qualities of her singing.
One from the Heart was very well recorded, and the CD captures much of the richness of the sound, but Krieg Wunderlich’s mastering for the MoFi LP gives even more life to the music, and the larger soundstage gives it a grander presentation. The nuances of the horns’ sounds are rendered much more powerfully -- Jack Sheldon’s trumpet is fuller and has timbral accuracy, and Teddy Edwards’ tenor sax is sharper and grittier. Both instruments have a holographic impact that puts them in the room with me.
Waits would change direction dramatically a year later with Swordfishtrombones, when he began writing more unusual songs with unique instrumentation. One from the Heart closed the chapter of his career in which his songwriting was a mixture of Beat-era romanticism and the Great American Songbook. It’s the only Waits title in the MoFi catalog; after hearing this pressing, I hope they do more.
The Pretenders’ eponymous debut was one of the strongest in rock history, and its release in 1980 seemed to announce what music in the next decade might be. Punk rock was already well established, but the Pretenders had both toughness and finesse, exhibiting the strong songwriting skills that had defined such new-wave musicians as Elvis Costello or the later Clash. Chrissie Hynde, the band’s leader, guitarist, and singer, had an outlaw persona, and wrote songs that were uncompromising in their views on feminism and sexual politics.
I still have the Sire Records pressing of Pretenders that I bought in 1980, as well as the 1990 CD release. The LP will be my point of comparison with Mobile Fidelity’s pressing (MFSL 1-372). “Precious” opens the album with fast, distorted guitars and hard-hitting drums that announce that this is a band that takes no prisoners. The Sire pressing is aggressive and loud; the MoFi is cut at a lower volume. At 47 minutes, Pretenders is long for a rock LP, so it’s necessary to bump the volume anyway; the MoFi is helped by an additional slight turn of the knob.
Hynde’s vocals have more subtle shading and fullness in “Precious” on the MoFi pressing, a brighter edge on the more treble-heavy Sire LP. Pete Farndon’s buoyant and rhythmically complex bass lines have greater low-end fullness on MoFi, more snap on Sire. Martin Chambers’s drums are forward in the Sire, but the MoFi moves them back to give them room. The guitars roar louder on Sire, but sound more harmonically complex on the MoFi. I like the energy on the original pressing, but the MoFi has a more engaging, more complex sound.
With its complex 7/4 time signature and shimmering guitars, “Tattooed Love Boys” is the kind of song that set the Pretenders apart from their peers. The MoFi version opens up the sound of the maracas and lets them ring out, and Farndon’s bass pushes more strongly. Hynde’s voice on the Sire LP is brighter and more biting, but on the MoFi she sounds fuller and more nuanced. James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar retains its strength and motion in his solos, but the notes sustain longer, with a more striking fullness.
Honeyman-Scott’s Duane Eddy guitar line opens “Kid,” one of the Pretenders’ strongest songs -- a pop masterpiece with a hard edge. The rhythm guitars behind him, which carry into the vocal, are better defined and more vibrant on the MoFi, slightly distant on the Sire. Farndon’s bass in “Brass in Pocket” sounds fatter on the MoFi -- and in the verses, I can hear the attacks in the muted guitar lines behind Hynde. Leading up to the chorus, there’s a cowbell deep in the mix; it can be heard better and echoes more clearly on the MoFi.
Chambers’s drums are massive in the introduction to “Mystery Achievement” on MoFi, his kick drum thumping hard, his snare ringing out sharply. Farndon’s bass also sounds bigger and reaches deeper, and the guitars have more sheen. Hynde’s multitracked vocals in the chorus are separated better, and each note in Honeyman-Scott’s brilliant guitar solo -- one of my very favorites -- ring out even more powerfully.
I like the verve and compression in the Sire pressing, but Krieg Wunderlich’s remastering has given Pretenders a big, expansive, more detailed sound without sacrificing the gritty undercurrent that gives the album its strength. I had some reservations about Mobile Fidelity’s SACD/CD of the Pretenders’ II; this time, Wunderlich has given us a better-sounding LP while staying true to the band’s intentions.
Miles Davis released On the Corner in 1972, to almost universal derision. The album has since been reassessed by some critics, but it’s still not widely admired in jazz circles. Rock critic Lester Bangs, who loved Miles and the noisy jazz experiments of players like Albert Ayler, dismissed On the Corner as “the absolute worst album this man ever put out.” Five years later, he called it “something genuinely new.”
Depending on one’s mood, both statements might seem true. On the Corner is a difficult, confrontational record that reveals new layers of sound and meaning every time I play it. Davis had formed a friendship with composer and arranger Paul Buckmaster, who introduced him to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The German avant-garde composer’s experiments in electronic sound, tape loops, and other effects seem to have led Davis to use repetition and pure sound to reach his goals for On the Corner.
Davis also wanted to incorporate funk and rock into his music, and the result was nothing like Stockhausen or anyone else. Most of side 1 of On the Corner is a 20-minute suite, “On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ of One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles.” It begins abruptly, in the middle of music that clearly has been going on for a while. Mark Wilder’s remastering of the 2000 CD release feels crowded compared to MoFi’s LP release (MFSL 1-452), so the first impression I got when comparing the two is that Wunderlich had opened the music up on the LP so that you can hear the many elements in this densely populated music.
On the Corner is a rhythm-centered record, and in the opening suite, three drummers, handclaps, and a tabla create layers of percussion. Hi-hats, cowbells, snare drums, and tabla crisscross, and it’s easy to lose track of them. On the MoFi pressing, I can tell them apart, as well as a tom drum about 9:30 into the opening suite that I can now hear was being played by hand. Miles’s trumpet lines, which he played through a wah-wah pedal and an Echoplex, still cut deeply throughout the album, but they don’t have the irritating brightness they do on CD.
Dave Liebman’s soprano sax in the opening suite emerges more clearly from the mix. John McLaughlin’s guitar sounds even rawer and more agitated than on CD, but fuller as well. The mastering for the MoFi pressing gives the instruments more room to spread out, and a recording so fully packed benefits from that space.
“Black Satin,” which closes side 1, begins with a tabla, whistling sounds on a keyboard, and an electric sitar. The tabla rings out and sustains longer on LP, and as the track builds, there’s more space around the other instruments. Michael Henderson’s bass sounds sharper on CD, but has more bottom-end fullness on MoFi vinyl. The shaken bells that run throughout shimmer more brightly, and Miles’s trumpet lines feel more stabbing and full-bodied.
Henderson’s bass holds down the bottom in “One and One,” which opens side 2 and continues the themes outlined in “Black Satin.” Drums, hi-hats, and tabla again bounce the rhythm around. The percussion is brighter on CD, more full-bodied and three-dimensional on LP.
On the Corner closes with the 23-minute “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X,” which expands even further on the elements introduced in “Black Satin.” Springy percussion and bells mingle with drums, cymbals, and dense layers of keyboards that give Miles and tenor-sax player Carlos Garnett a strange tapestry to play against. When the track grows quieter near the end, the change in volume feels more dramatic on the LP, and throughout, it’s easier to follow individual keyboard and percussion sounds.
On the Corner is not an easy record to grasp, but with repeated playings its power sinks deeper in. It captures a restless musician at a time in his life when he wanted to move his music forward yet again, as well as the anger and struggles of African-American life in the 1970s and even today. Mobile Fidelity could easily have chosen to press only the more popular Miles Davis titles. Instead, they’ve given us one of his more bracing, challenging, and difficult albums in the best possible sound.
Each of these LPs is housed in a heavy cardboard cover, an antistatic inner sleeve, and a protective inner jacket. The covers for Pretenders and On the Corner are gatefolds, and the reproductions of the photographs and cover art for all three are clear and colorful. The 180gm pressings, by RTI, are silent. Vinyl lives and continues to thrive because of the quality insisted on by companies such as Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.
. . . Joseph Taylor